Ron Dante has had a long and distinguished career in the music industry as a singer, songwriter, and producer. In 1969, his vocals helped catapult The Archies’ hit, “Sugar, Sugar,” to the top of the charts where it became the #1 single of the year. In addition to writing songs for a variety of artists, Dante came to prominence as a record producer, most notably with Barry Manilow. More recently, however, Dante has toured the country with the Happy Together Tour as a member of The Turtles.
Spotlight Central recently had a chance to chat with Dante about his musical background; his time with The Archies, Barry Manilow, and The Happy Together Tour; and, also, about what he’s currently working on during the current suspension of live concerts.
Spotlight Central: You were born in Staten Island. Did you grow up in a musical family?
Ron Dante: No, I didn’t. My dad owned a shop that made car coats — winter coats — for children, which Robert Hall and other companies would sell. But growing up in a big Italian family — my dad had seven brothers and my mom had four sisters — everybody sang. So I grew up around music, but no one in my family was in the music business.
Spotlight Central: When you mention stores like Robert Hall, you bring back fond memories of the ‘60s.
Ron Dante: It’s so funny, I used to sing Robert Hall commercials. My dad was so proud of me when I finally snagged a Robert Hall commercial which, as I recall, was a Christmas commercial.
Spotlight Central: As you were growing up, who were some of your early musical influences?
Ron Dante: The biggest influence on me had to be Elvis Presley. I was only ten or eleven years old when Elvis exploded on the scene and changed everything with his guitar, his songs, and his excitement. Elvis was the first major artist who got me to want to play the guitar, actually — I loved his hit records; they were magic to me.
And, of course, my dad played a lot of great acts on our family record player like The Platters, Frankie Laine, and Johnnie Ray, so all those early ’50s artists were an influence on me. After that came guys like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, and The Everly Brothers were a huge vocal influence on my life, as well.
Spotlight Central: As a young man, you were in a group called The Persuaders. Was that your first band?
Ron Dante: Yes, that was my first group. I helped form it, and it was just three of us — there’s a picture of us on the internet somewhere of us wearing formal jackets and stuff — and I was the lead singer.
It’s so funny. We booked a show one Saturday night at a CYO center on the East Coast — a Catholic Youth Organization center — and we were going to play there, but a couple of days before, I busted my leg. I thought we were going to have to cancel, but I said, “No, no! Just put the cast on and I’ll go on stage with the cast!” and that was the first performance of The Persuaders — with me in a cast.
Spotlight Central: And from there, you went on to have a hit record with a group called The Detergents. The group recorded a novelty song called “Leader of the Laundromat,” which was sort of a “Leader of the Pack” parody. Was that your first professional recording?
Ron Dante: Actually, I had recorded as a soloist a couple of times before that. I had a record out about a year earlier on Musicor Records called “Don’t Stand Up in a Canoe,” which was written by the same guys who wrote “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” — it was kind of like an answer song to that. So I did have a couple of releases before The Detergents’ record came out and became a big hit.
Spotlight Central: And how did you become a member of The Detergents?
Ron Dante: It’s funny how all of this is connected. Danny Jordan, Tommy Wynn, and I were staff writers at Don Kirshner’s music firm, and Danny’s uncle, Paul Vance, had written “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny.” Paul wanted three singers for his new song, and he said, “Danny, bring Ron and Tommy over tonight and you guys can put your voices on these tracks I’ve just put together.” So I went, and I ended up becoming a part of the group. It was great. We recorded the song in five separate pieces that night, and then Paul put all of the pieces together. “Leader of the Laundromat” was released by The Detergents — it nearly made the Top Ten and sold almost a million records.
Spotlight Central: And speaking of recording in pieces, you recorded multiple vocal parts when you did “Tracy,” a song that was credited to The Cufflinks. What was it like recording songs where you’d overdub your own voice many, many times?
Ron Dante: I was really used to it. I was a background singer and a lead singer for commercials, so I was used to multi-tracking my own voice to make it sound like a group, especially on a lot of demos I did. When “Tracy” came along, I just said, “I’m gonna make it sound like The Turtles or The Grass Roots or The Association” — that same kind of vocal approach, with a lead vocal and, also, things going around the lead singer.
So it was a lot of fun. I did, maybe, two dozen voices that night, all multi-tracked — the technology allowed me to continue to multi-track my voice and sing harmony to myself — and before you know it, I had this big, full sound.
Spotlight Central: Did you have a pre-written vocal arrangement for “Tracy,” or were you creating the arrangement as you laid down the individual tracks?
Ron Dante: I created the arrangement as I laid down the tracks. I decided “This is what it needs — it needs “ahs’ here, it needs some ‘oohs’ there, and an answer there” — and it was all formed around the lead vocal. That’s the first thing I’d always lay down — the lead vocal — and I could work from that; I could build on it, so it was the foundation. And all of this was in my head. I grew up singing doo-wop music so I knew all the different vocal parts — I had sung bass, I had sung middle, and I had sung falsetto lead in different doo-wop groups — so I could really imagine what a backup singer might want to sing behind a lead vocal.
Spotlight Central: You mentioned earlier the Robert Hall commercial you did which made your dad so proud, but you also did many other commercials for companies like McDonalds and Coke and Coppertone. Do you have a favorite jingle you’ve recorded?
Ron Dante: I loved them all, but “You Deserve a Break Today” for McDonalds was one of my big ones. Also, the jingles I did for Coppertone suntan lotion and Johnson’s baby shampoo are some of my favorites because they were two of the first.
Spotlight Central: It’s got to be exciting to hear yourself for the first time on a commercial!
Ron Dante: Oh, it was unbelievable to hear yourself on the radio! Every singer wants to be on the radio — or on TV — and to hear your voice? That’s what you train for and hope for your whole career.
Spotlight Central: And speaking of hearing your voice on the radio, thanks to your vocals, The Archies had a #1 mega-hit with “Sugar Sugar” in 1969. How did that come about for you?
Ron Dante: That was thanks to my friend, Don Kirshner, who originally gave me my break in the music business. He signed me to a music deal with his publishing company when I was seventeen years old. Five years later, I heard he was working on a TV project, the animated Archies TV show. A friend of mine told me the project needed a lead singer, so I called Don Kirschner up and said, “I’d like to audition for it — I think I might be good for the group.”
I went and auditioned and got the part. Don was working with a great producer/writer named Jeff Barry, who had written maybe 30 or more hits in the ‘60s, so I knew it was a golden opportunity to succeed on some level.
Spotlight Central: And that song still sounds as fresh today as it did when it first hit the airwaves.
Ron Dante: It’s amazing — it was the 50th anniversary of that song last year.
Spotlight Central: After that, you had a lot of success producing albums for Barry Manilow. You even sang backup on his first hit, “Mandy,” didn’t you?
Ron Dante: Actually, I sang backup on all of his hits from 1975 to 1983. I was his co-producer — and, basically, I took him in the studio and helped him to get a record deal as a solo artist. We put out one album which didn’t do too well, and then we got a second chance for another album and on that one was “Mandy.” And I sang on every one of his records. On “Mandy,” we came up with what was a very identifiable background sound around Barry’s great vocal. It turned out to be lucky for us, so every record after that, I didn’t want to miss the boat — so even if there are girls singing, like on “Copacabana,” I’m in the girl group singing with them!
Spotlight Central: Of all the many Manilow hits you helped create, do you have a favorite?
Ron Dante: Well, in my heart, it’s got to be “Mandy” because it was the breakthrough career-making record for Barry. I mean, he built a 40-year career on that record. I loved all of our hits — each one was a labor of love to produce, to sing on, and to mix — and to make sure that all the sounds were right for Barry. We were blessed to get lots of great songs — half of them Barry wrote and half of them we found elsewhere — but that one’s my favorite. “Mandy” went to #1 and became a million seller, and from there we never looked back.
Spotlight Central: As a producer, you also worked with other major recording artists including Cher, Dionne Warwick, Pat Benetar, Ray Charles, and John Denver. Do you have a favorite memory of working with any of these artists?
Ron Dante: Well, they all were really good singers. As a singer, I can appreciate somebody’s vocal ability and the way he or she can communicate a song — so they were all really good.
John Denver was a very, very strong singer — we did two or three television tracks together — and I did the same with Dionne Warwick and Ray Charles; I worked on their TV specials — but I must say that my favorite memory was working with Cher.
Working with Cher was like working with the most famous woman in the world. At the time, she was a huge television star, and a movie star, too. She was just the nicest person, and she was so easy to work with. When she was scheduled to record, she’d show up, she’d sing all afternoon for me, and then we’d go out to dinner afterwards or we’d go back to her house in Malibu to talk about some TV specials she was working on. She was just a delight.
Once, she also called me up at 3am to play me a song called “Too Far Gone” which she had written about her ex-husband, Gregg Allman. She asked me, “Do you think we could record this?” and I said, “Absolutely.” It’s on her Take Me Home album and it’s one of my favorite cuts — it has a really beautiful vocal and it’s a really good song. She can write.
Spotlight Central: After being a part of the Happy Together Tour in 2017, starting in 2018, you joined the tour as a member of The Turtles. What has it been like for you being a part of that experience for the past few years?
Ron Dante: Well, to me, being part of The Turtles is like being a part of one the greatest pop groups of all time. They have many, many hits. “Happy Together” gets played constantly — I mean it’s even on the new Heinz ketchup commercial — it just never goes away; everybody loves it.
I was so honored when Mark Volman and the manager of The Turtles called me up and said, “Howard Kaylan isn’t physically up to traveling and we want you to be the lead singer” — I almost dropped the phone when they asked me — and I said, “You got me!” because I’d have this great catalog to sing and all of these wonderful audiences to visit again. They had really gotten to know me on my first tour — so I went from opening the show with my Archies’ songs to closing the show with The Turtles’ songs — and it was just a great blessing which I’m very happy about.
Spotlight Central: Since live concerts have been suspended for the time being, what are you doing these days?
Ron Dante: I’m putting together a new CD that will come out in September. It’s going to be called something like Animated Dante and it will include previously-unreleased tracks from The Archies TV series. It will also include songs from a couple of other animated projects I was involved with. One is an Asian-American TV series which was on CBS called The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. Also, I was the voice of Spiderman on a classic album called Spiderman: Beyond the Grave. So we’re going to put a bunch of these songs on an album which will be something new and fresh, and a lot of fun.
Spotlight Central: That does sound like a fun! In the meantime, is there anything else you’d like to add — or any words of wisdom for those of us who are looking forward to hearing live music again?
Ron Dante: I want everyone to know that things will return bigger and better than ever — and that you can’t keep a good crowd down! People are going to want to come out and see shows, and they’re going to come out in droves. I’m looking forward to that day, but until then, just hang in there, folks — keep playing that music and keep listening to your favorite songs!
To learn more about Ron Dante, please go to rondante.com.
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